It all began with a simple magazine insert.
Bronx born cartoonist and illustrator Rick Meyerowitz was on his way to a peace rally in Bryant Park in 1969 when he grabbed a copy of the recently published Harvard Lampoon Time Magazine parody.
Today Meyerowitz is an accomplished veteran artist, known primarily for several memorable New Yorker covers. Recently he spoke with Review Magazine from his New York City art studio and recalled that long ago afternoon:
“I sat through the demonstration with 30,000 people and I just laughed the whole time. (The magazine) was written mostly by Doug (Kenney) and Henry (Beard). There was a little card and I sent it in before I left the park. I thought that was the greatest thing.”
A few months later Meyerowitz would be collaborating with recent Harvard graduates Beard and Kenney on the first issue of their new National Lampoon magazine.
Forty years later Meyerowtz's collection of Lampoon classics and reminiscences, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made The National Lampoon Insanely Great (Abrams. 320 pages, $40) pays tribute to the wicked, wild and witty lads and lasses who writer Michael O'Donoghue once bragged “could have kicked the s**t out of the Algonquin Round Table.”
Looking back just a few decades there were many monthly publications followed by avid readers. And in the decade of the Seventies, no magazine burned brighter or grew more explosively than The National Lampoon.
The Lampoon debuted in the April 1970 with a “Sexy Cover Issue”.
“A few months (after mailing the card) Michael O'Donoghue phoned me and said a few guys were starting up this magazine and he was going to be a part of it and would I like to meet them? I was there seven months before the first issue. I didn't have day to day involvement but I contributed ideas and art and saw them frequently and we continued to be quite close until I went to London in the fall of 1971.”
The monthly magazine was packed with brilliant writing and clever cartoons, but for the first several issues struggled with a visual design more suited to underground comics.
The first issue was a case in point. The cover was clumsy and not all that sexy. It suffered by comparison to Harvard Lampoon's Time Magazine parody two years earlier, which boasted a sharper, funnier and sexier cover. Meyerowitz recalls the first issues were packed with brilliant ideas awkwardly executed by hippie collective Cloud Studio's art direction.
“What I remember is the first issues were an incredible mess. There was amazing material that was not being executed properly. It was sloppy and that was Cloud Studio.”
“I remember meeting with them and I'd just gotten the third issue with an Arnold Roth cover and holding it (the magazine) seemed really thick. I remember thinking 'this isn't a magazine, it feels like a toy.' There were so many things. At the same time I looked at it and thought 'I'm not sure if this can go on.' Cloud was not quite getting the art right. Parody needs to look like what you are parodying.”
By fall of that year, the Harvard brain trust gave Cloud Studios their walking papers and hired magazine design wunderkind Michael Gross, a recent Pratt Art Institute grad who had won acclaim for his work on the 1968 Tokyo Olympics.
Gross reinvented the publication's look, making covers that were smart, eye catching and professional. Gross is also credited with introduction of The Funny Pages, a cartoon section in the back of each issue featuring regular strips by Gahan Wilson (Nuts), Shary Flenniken (Trots and Bonnie), Charles Rodrigues, Ron Barret(Politenessman), Bobby London (Dirty Duck), Stan Mack , M. K. Brown, Vaughn Bode (Cheech Wizard) and countless others.
In a section dedicated to the magazine's award-winning art direction, Meyerowitz notes that “the design legacy they (Gross and design partner, the late David Kaestle) left behind has been incorporated into the larger vocabulary of modern design. Every page of this book is, in some way, a tribute to their original vision."
A few years ago the Bronx born Meyerowitz was visiting his publisher (he has authored several books) and was surprised when he was asked why he had never pitched a book about the Lampoon. He quickly warmed to the idea of revisiting the era and his old friends.
“I loved my involvement (with the Lampoon) the whole time. The word “Brilliant” is on the cover for a reason. This point I think is crucial: these weren't just funny people. They were smart. They were lightening fast. Such razor sharp wit and brilliance of execution.”
“The experience of going to the office was never less than exhilarating,” Meyerowitz recalls. “When you went to that office, you could feel the hum, like there was an electric cable underground and you could feel the energy humming throughout this thing. You left energized, entertained.”
There have been dozens of anthologies and special editions featuring classic pieces like Doug Kenney's “Nancy Reagan's Guide to Dating”, or Chris Miller's initial fraternity tale “The Night of the Seven Fires”. The words and art of the Lampoon is readily available to anyone who can access amazon.com and ebay.
What is special and unique about Meyerowitz's volume is the fascinating essays by the surviving writers and artists themselves. Meyerowitz is more than happy to let these brilliant and talented men and women take center stage and share their own tales of toiling in the trenches at 635 Madison Avenue.
Writer Emily Prager remembers her friendship with the notoriously bad tempered O'Donoghue. Copy editor Louise Gikow recalls her first proofreading assignment, a 20 page, single spaced manuscript, a literal “tour de force” legal parody by Henry Beard and John Weidman “The Law of the Jungle” (reprinted in its entirety). Michel Chochette shares his tropical misadventures with a Hitler look-alike to produce a travelogue photo essay for the “Escape” issue.
One of the many joys of the book is that Meyerowitz was (and is) in a unique position as someone who contributed to the magazine for almost its entire quarter century of publication. He also collaborated and socialized with the writers, which most of the artists didn't do.
He has penned an appreciation for each of the writers and artists mentioned in the book, spinning yarns and making it plain that, as with Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, “attention must be paid” to this gifted band of media misfits who set the comedic tone for a generation.
Vital but lesser known writers and artists such as Gerry Sussman (Bernie X), Sam Gross and Charles Rodrigues (The Aesop Brothers) are honored, not simply remembered, for their role in the magazine's success.
Part of what Meyerowitz aimed to accomplish was to chronicle the unique collection of personalities that was assembled by Kenney and Beard in those early years.
“Yesterday I had lunch with (writer) Sean Kelly. He's about 70. We're two old guys, and my head was spinning. He's just the funniest guy and so brilliant. I kept in touch to keep that experience alive. I did the book to try to reconstruct that community even if it was just on paper.”
Others have written fine books covering the rise and fall of The Lampoon. Tony Hendra's excellent “Going Too Far” and publisher Matty Simmons' memoir have provided unique perspectives. Josh Karp and Dennis Perrin chronicled the lives of Doug Kenney and Michael O'Donoghue in fine biographies.
Meyerowitz knew that another history lesson was not needed at this point.
“I liked Josh's book and Tony's book but there's limits to what you can do to describe an issue. I wanted readers to see the work, to give a portfolio of each person's work, in one chunk, so you can see the range is from a silly ad to a prose piece to a comic strip or an editorial. And to see the range of that person in one fat chapter and recognize that person's voice. “
"These were very hard working , brilliant people who were dedicated to this enterprise, a literary enterprise which degenerated in the late Eighties to a magazine with busty girls and fart jokes.”
This lavish coffee table book is a fitting testament to the greatness that was The National Lampoon, and will make many many humor fans happy on his holiday season.
Countless devoted readers of the magazine owe Meyerowitz a great debt for undertaking this labor of love. Fans of comedy and humor who missed the magazine's glory years have a treat in store for them, as does any serious student of American comedy.
Note to shoppers: The handsome hardcover volume is available at Barnes and Noble in Saginaw and at all major booksellers. Thrift conscious shoppers will find it at Amazon.com for about $15 off the $40 cover price.)